Listen to David Gray discuss his work:
For decades, American aviation relied on one basic technology to keep track of planes in the sky: ground-based radar systems. On Jan. 1, 2020, the system leaped into the modern age, with more than 110,000 commercial and general aviation aircraft having hit the deadline to switch to the satellite-based Global Positioning System, an advancement designed to make flying safer.
At the center of this major transformation was David Gray of the Federal Aviation Administration, who successfully coordinated the needs of the government, the airlines and the military to bring this highly complex, multibillion dollar undertaking to completion on time and on budget.
“This state-of-the-art surveillance system enables air traffic controllers to track aircraft with greater accuracy and reliability,” said Dan Hicok, the FAA director of surveillance services. “David was instrumental in taking this technology from concept to implementation across the U.S. in every state and integrate it into every single air traffic control facility.”
Gray, the FAA’s acting deputy director of surveillance services, not only brought a wealth of technical skills to the task, but a deft touch in bringing people together.
Kristen Burnham, a vice president in the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, said Gray used his well-honed “diplomatic skills” to foster “a large-scale collaboration – a true public-private partnership to modernize the national aviation system.
“His job required influence across the entire aviation ecosystem, and that was not an easy thing to do,” Burnham said. “It required bringing a lot of people along, and he took it on with great patience and skill.”
The legacy radar systems relied on ground stations bouncing radio waves off aircraft and determining their position from the returning signal. Planes flying over oceans, which cover 71% of the planet, as well as remote regions that are beyond range of radar surveillance, had to report their position to air traffic control every 15 minutes so pilots could be told how to maintain a safe distance from one another.
With the new avionics now aboard planes and helicopters, their movements can be traced in real time with GPS coordinates. The new system, known as the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, enables aircraft to continuously transmit their location, altitude and speed to air traffic controllers and other pilots who are properly equipped. This technology is providing the foundation for the FAA’s initiative to modernize the entire air traffic management system.
The FAA completed a comprehensive economic analysis of the business case for ADS-B. It showed that this technology provides significant financial benefits, including emissions savings and improved air traffic control accommodation of aircraft requests for descents, changes in routes and speed. The system allows for more direct routes, cutting flight time and fuel consumption, and enables aircraft to follow one another at a closer distance, increasing capacity on busy air corridors. The FAA has said the enhanced surveillance capabilities also will improve safety.
Gray was an engineering contractor for the FAA for11 years before joining the federal service in 2009. In this capacity, he worked on a system that warns pilots of small planes about situations that could lead to midair collisions, and on another project that helps air traffic controllers improve safety at airports.
Gray started work on ADS-B more than a decade ago, including updating polices, making regulatory changes to accommodate civilian, military and homeland security operators.
“Manufacturers, airlines, trade groups, equipment manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus—they all had to work together before crossing the finish line this year,” Gray said.
Gray’s success is due in part to his capacity for focus, Burnham said, along with a talent for team building.
“Others like to move around regularly and chase shiny objects,” she said. “David was dedicated to completing one project over many years, proving loyalty to a cause.”
His team followed suit. The past 10 years have seen little turnover and valuable continuity—a remarkable management achievement, considering the demand for engineers in and out of government, Burnham said.
David is “a very inclusive leader,” explained Bill Kaplan, an FAA program manager. “He’s very open to sharing information and the rationale for strategic and tactical decisions. He grasps the big picture and moves forward on our agency’s goals.”
Those same skills built trust among stakeholders in industry and government, and helped ensure that the modernization project was implemented on schedule, said Mark DeNicuolo, a deputy vice president in the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization.
“He’s just a standup guy,” he said. “He comes with the solutions, effectively managing down, up and across the organization.”